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GOBLA v. CRESTWOOD SCH. DIST.

February 1, 1985

ELIZABETH GOBLA, Plaintiff
v.
CRESTWOOD SCHOOL DISTRICT, et al., Defendants



The opinion of the court was delivered by: NEALON

 This action was originally filed by the plaintiff on June 4, 1982, in which she alleged violations of 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983, 1985 and the Pennsylvania Equal Rights Amendment pursuant to her discharge as a school teacher from the Crestwood School District. The plaintiff's dismissal hearing was held before the Crestwood School Board on October 3 and 9, 1978 in which she was charged with thirty-five counts of insubordination. On November 2, 1978 she was formally discharged for having violated the school laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The Secretary of Education sustained the dismissal and, in the process, made thirty-two findings of fact, twenty-three of which detail acts and omissions by the plaintiff which rise to the level of negligence and persistent and willful violation of the school laws. The plaintiff then appealed her dismissal to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania alleging that, because of some of the incidents charged in the October 1978 dismissal proceedings occurred prior to an earlier March 1978 suspension hearing, those incidents could not form part of the basis for her dismissal. These items, she contended, constituted unlawful double punishment for the same conduct. The Commonwealth Court concluded, however, that the Order of the Secretary of Education must be affirmed absent findings of violation of constitutional rights, abuse of discretion, error of law, or unsupported findings of fact. The plaintiff then filed the present action here, alleging different reasons for her discharge, i.e., constitutional and federal statutory violations. In this action the plaintiff suggests that the reasons given for her dismissal in the administrative hearings were pretextual and that the real reasons contravene her rights under the Equal Protection Clause and the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

 On February 2, 1984, the defendants filed a Motion for Summary Judgment and brief in support thereof alleging the plaintiff has not stated constitutionally cognizable claims against the defendants. The plaintiff filed an Opposition Brief dated February 10, 1984 and the defendants filed a Reply Brief on February 24, 1984. After consideration of the defendants' motion, the court permitted both parties to file supplemental briefs. The defendants filed their supplemental brief on August 30, 1984 and plaintiff filed her supplemental brief on October 1, 1984. After a subsequent conference in Chambers with all parties, the motion is now ripe for disposition. The motion will be denied for the reasons set forth below.

 There are basically three broad issues the court will address: (1) the First Amendment issue -- whether the "outspokenness," which plaintiff claims led to her discharge, is protected speech and is actionable; (2) the equal protection issue -- whether § 1983 can be the basis for a sexual harassment/sexual discrimination claim; and (3) the conspiracy issue -- whether Principal Theodore Geffert, Superintendent William Smodic and Assistant Principal Mary Redgate conspired to do something "illegal." Preliminarily, a review of plaintiff's complaint, Document No. 1 of the Record, indicates that she alleges she was exercising her constitutional rights of free speech and assembly in order to evaluate the ability, competency and experience of the Crestwood School Board, its members and other defendants, when she was terminated. She also maintains that defendants considered her to be an opinion leader within the union. As a result of exercising her rights, plaintiff contends she was arbitrarily terminated and that the defendants' actions were taken in bad faith by a plan to discredit her. The plan purportedly included filing false charges, securing false statements from alleged witnesses, harassment and a denial of due process. The complaint itself makes no mention of sexual harassment or sexual discrimination. *fn1" Plaintiff also asserts she did not become aware a conspiracy existed until the deposition of Mary Redgate was taken subsequent to the commencement of this action.

 FIRST AMENDMENT ISSUE

 The leading Supreme Court case in the First Amendment area is Pickering v. Board of Education, 391 U.S. 563, 20 L. Ed. 2d 811, 88 S. Ct. 1731 (1968). As a general rule, citizens do not relinquish all of their First Amendment rights when they become public employees. Id. However, the state "has interests as an employer in regulating the speech of its employees that differ significantly from those it possesses in connection with regulation of the speech of the citizenry in general." Id. at 568. Accordingly, courts must "arrive at a balance between the interests of the teacher, as a citizen, in commenting upon matters of public concern and the interests of the state, as an employer, in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees." Id. A school board may not dismiss an employee for criticizing school policies that are of public interest unless the speech contains knowingly or recklessly false statements, undermines the ability of a teacher to function, or interferes with the operation of the school. Id. at 568-72. See also McGee v. South Pemiscot School District, 712 F.2d 339, 342 (8th Cir. 1983); Czurlanis v. Albanese, 721 F.2d 98, 102 (3d Cir. 1983); Monsanto v. Quinn, 674 F.2d 990, 993 (3d Cir. 1982).

 In Trotman v. Board of Trustees, 635 F.2d 216, 224-25 (3d Cir. 1980), cert. denied, 451 U.S. 986, 101 S. Ct. 2320, 68 L. Ed. 2d 844 (1981), the Court of Appeals reviewed the three step process usually required in examining a public employee's claim of retaliation for engaging in protected activity. See also Monsanto v. Quinn, supra ; and Czurlanis v. Albanese, supra. First, the plaintiff must show that the activity in question was protected. See Pickering v. Board of Education, supra. If successful in demonstrating that the activity was protected, the plaintiff must then show that the activity was a substantial or motivating factor in the decision or action taken against her. Mt. Healthy City School District Board of Education v. Doyle, 429 U.S. 274, 287, 50 L. Ed. 2d 471, 97 S. Ct. 568 (1977). Lastly, the defendant has the opportunity to defeat the plaintiff's claim by demonstrating that the same action would have been taken even in the absence of the protected conduct. Givhan v. Western Line Consolidated School District, 439 U.S. 410, 416-17, 58 L. Ed. 2d 619, 99 S. Ct. 693 (1979); Mt. Healthy City School District Board of Education v. Doyle, 429 U.S. at 287.

 Initially, in determining whether a motion for summary judgment by the defendant is meritorious, the court must begin with an inquiry of whether Mrs. Gobla's speech was protected. To decide that issue, we must first ascertain whether the speech dealt with a matter of public concern. In Connick v. Myers, 461 U.S. 138, 146, 75 L. Ed. 2d 708, 103 S. Ct. 1684 (1983), the Supreme Court held that where public employee's activity "cannot be fairly characterized as constituting speech on a matter of public concern," it is unnecessary for the court to scrutinize the reasons for the plaintiff's discharge or the disciplinary action. The Court continued, "when employee expression cannot be fairly considered as relating to any matter of political, social or other concern to the community, government officials should enjoy wide latitude in managing their offices, without intrusive oversight by the judiciary in the name of the First Amendment." Id. Accordingly, the Court in Connick made an essential distinction between speech by a public employee "as a citizen upon matters of public concern" and speech by an employee "upon matters of only personal interest." Id. at 147. Only when an employee speaks upon a matter of public concern is a federal court the appropriate forum "in which to review the wisdom of a personnel decision taken by a public agency allegedly in reaction to the employee's behavior." Id. "Whether an employee's speech addresses a matter of public concern must be determined by the content, form and context of a given statement, as revealed by the whole record." Id. at 147-48.

 In the case sub judice, we must examine each of Mrs. Gobla's allegedly protected statements to determine whether any or all of them are protected, as defined by the Court in Connick. Mrs. Gobla appears to argue that due to her "outspokenness" a campaign developed by the defendants Geffert and Smodick to insure her eventual discharge. She alleges she went to the Superintendent to discuss possible kickbacks to Mr. Geffert with regard to school ring purchases. *fn2" Also, that she argued with the administration over the proper course for a rape victim's rehabilitation, and that she was open and defiant as to school policies which she did not support. Finally, that newspaper articles were published by local papers in which she openly disagreed with school policies.

 It appears that while some of Mrs. Gobla's allegations involve merely employee grievances, she alleges at least two matters which are arguably matters of public importance, i.e., purported kickbacks on the sale of class rings and the newspaper articles in which she aired several grievances. The other issues raised by Mrs. Gobla are clearly in the same vein as those raised in Connick and constitute unprotected speech. In Connick, the plaintiff, a former assistant district attorney unhappy about a transfer, contended she was dismissed for compiling and distributing a questionnaire to her coworkers concerning office transfer policy, office morale, the need for a grievance committee, the level of confidence in supervisors and whether employees felt pressure to work in political campaigns. With the exception of the last issue, the court held the questions posed by the plaintiff did not fall within the realm of matters of public concern. 461 U.S. at 148. The court further explained:

 
[Plaintiff] did not seek to inform the public that the district attorney's office was not discharging its governmental responsibilities in the investigation and prosecution of criminal cases. Nor did [she] seek to bring to light actual or potential wrongdoing or breach of public trust on the part of the [district attorney] and others. . . . The questions reflect one employee's dissatisfaction with the transfer and an attempt to turn that displeasure into a cause celebre.

 Id.

 Unlike Connick, the plaintiff in Czurlanis, supra, alleging he was suspended in retaliation for making a speech at a county board meeting, was found to have a protected First Amendment right. 721 F.2d at 107. Czurlanis, a senior mechanic at the Westfield Garage, addressed the board on precisely the questions which the Court in Connick noted were not the subject of plaintiff's speech there, i.e., whether county officials in the Division of Motor Vehicles were discharging their governmental responsibilities. Id. at 104. He sought to bring to light actual or potential wrongdoings or breach of public trust on the part of these officials. Czurlanis spoke as a concerned citizen and taxpayer and not as an aggrieved employee. The Court of Appeals explained that "the fact that Czurlanis became aware of the matters which he raised at the board meeting through his employment with the county does not make these matters any less issues of public concern." Id. Therefore, they determined the speech in question approximated that in Pickering.

 After determining the speech at issue relates to a matter of public concern we must also conduct the balancing as explained in Pickering. Among the factors considered relevant in determining whether the speech related to an ...


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